South Bay Lakers President Joey Buss wanted to know why his team couldn’t shake off the Oklahoma City Blue in last year’s NBA G League standings.
Despite rattling off enough wins to capture the Pacific Division, South Bay couldn’t distance itself from the Blue, which finished with a matching 34-16 record.
The answer to Buss and his staff was the play of OKC point guard Alex Caruso — a 6-foot-5 two-way playmaker who led the league in steals and ranked sixth in assists.
So when the G League held a combine for its players in Chicago over the offseason, Buss and co. were already locked in on the 23-year-old rookie.
“He was the best player at that combine,” Buss said. “That helped us seal our decision to bring him to Summer League. And he seized the opportunity.”
Indeed, Caruso thrived on a summer roster built largely by Buss, South Bay General Manager Nick Mazzella and their staff.
Caruso put up 18 points and nine assists while starting in place of an injured Lonzo Ball. The performance earned him the first two-way contract between the Los Angeles Lakers and South Bay.
When Ball was again hurt for the Summer League championship game, Caruso stepped up again with 15 points, seven rebounds and nine assists.
“Having a guy that is pretty much on an NBA roster be kind of like the leader of your minor league team is very valuable,” Buss said with the Summer League championship trophy sitting behind him in his office at the UCLA Health Training Center.
The Lakers’ new, state-of-the-art facility is just two weeks from its grand, public unveiling for South Bay’s home opener on Nov. 8.
There is also a preseason exhibition open to the fans on Sunday, though Buss knows that the energy will be dialed up for the season opener.
“I’m looking forward to the fan atmosphere and the excitement that will create,” Buss said. “The first time everybody’s here is a little bit more special than any other time.”
When the UCLA Health Training Center was designed, much attention was put into making sure that it could double as both a practice facility and an arena.
Outfitted with a box office, lobby, bleachers and second-floor suite, Buss is certain of the center’s ability to host a buzzing game-day atmosphere.
“We have all the tools now that we need in order to attract more people, and we intend to do so,” Buss said. “There’s been a lot of excitement about people wanting to come and see the new facility.”
And with the new facility, fans will also get to see a team that includes two-way Lakers in Caruso and Vander Blue, and likely one or two of the Lakers’ 2017 draft picks.
One of the people who will be keeping an eye on this squad is Lakers President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, who impressed Buss with his grasp of the South Bay squad even before he was brought into the front office last February.
“He was very knowledgable with the minor leagues in basketball,” Buss said. “He knew the guys on the team, he paid attention, he watched. He really is a basketball junkie.”
Now working in the same building with Johnson, Buss has a Hall of Fame resource when it comes to South Bay’s quest for its first G League title. But perhaps more importantly, Buss’ organization can help Johnson by developing players for the NBA Lakers.
These goals are among the subjects discussed by Buss and Johnson in their meetings together.
“We had talked about how far the G League has come these last 10 years,” Buss said. “What we’re doing with the rebrand, what we’re aspiring to be.”